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Fish Machine Part 2 – The Glory Years

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When we left Don Blackman in the first installment of “Don Blackman and His Fabulous Fish Machine,” his 23-foot Blackman prototype was launched and had quickly become the trailer boat of choice for an impressive list of seasoned anglers.

Using a baseball metaphor, Blackman had swung for the fence with his boat. As he rounded third and headed home, he was already planning his next turn at bat in the upcoming decade. His next design would take him into the big leagues!

Blackman not only swung for the fence, the result was a Grand Slam Home Run with his next boat, the 26-foot Fish Machine.

Emboldened by the success enjoyed in the 1970s and early ’80s, Blackman drew plans for a basic 26-foot fiberglass hull that could be delivered in a variety of configurations. It was interesting that his motivation for the new model was not as much for financial reasons as it was that he and Shirley simply wanted a little larger platform for themselves – which, as it turned out, mirrored many of their followers’ desires as well.

Graduating from college in 1980, son Steve came aboard while they were still building the 23-footers. He was a welcome addition, working directly under Don and assisting in the operation of the shop, allowing his dad and mom more fishing time during season.

Design work completed, the task of building the molds for the new 26-foot Fish Machines was sandwiched in-between filling orders for the popular 23’s. Of course, the new molds generated plenty of excitement and anticipation for both past and potential new customers. When the first hull popped out of the mold in 1982, it drew enormous attention and many flocked to the new location on Market Street to take a peek at the roomier 26-foot Fish Machines.

When the new models were displayed during the Los Angeles Boat Show that year, interest was at an all-time high. “The orders began coming in,” Steve Blackman recalled recently. “We were moving some boats!”

Sales were brisk. By late 1985, there was a substantial increase in the workforce; they now had 21 employees. In addition to the backlog of orders, the tooling and molding had to be completed in order for a molded boat, without plywood in either hull or decks, could be delivered.

Ed Waldman, one of many Blackman repeat customers, had purchased three different models over three decades.

He recalled meeting the Blackman family through a mutual interest in dog training. At one time, both had owned retrievers and competed in picnic field trials. Blackman’s integrity and style became the foundation of a friendship that lasted till Don’s death in 2004, Waldman remembers.

Blackman’s shop was close to Waldman’s office. Ed would often drop by to talk of their common interests in dogs, hunting and fishing. During his visits, he admired how well the boats were designed, noting that they always reeked of quality. He promised himself that when he could afford a boat, it would be built by Blackman.

That day finally came in 1978 when Waldman ordered a 23-foot tan “Albacore Special,” complete with aluminum tower and dual controls. A frequent visitor to Blackman’s boat yard on Kettner Boulevard, he carefully monitored the building of his new toy.

Waldman and his friends enjoyed many happy hours on his 23-foot boat and caught marlin, albacore, rock cod and bass, usually with Don and Shirley fishing close by. In l984, he had had enough of freezing in the tower and asked Blackman to build a 26-foot Billfisher with a fly bridge in the same tan color.

“The cabinetry, including doors, drawers and tables, was always fabricated in-shop with the highest quality wood and finish. The wiring never caused trouble and the plumbing always worked. Railings and ladders were stainless steel and perfectly welded,” Waldman declared admiringly.

He marveled at how Don would install the boot stripe in the yard and it would be right at the waterline when the boat was launched.

Once Ed asked how Don got into boat building. Don answered with a sheepish grin, “I was always drawing boats in school.”

A year later, in 1985, Don and Shirley considered selling their family home in Bay Park where they had raised their family. They reasoned that since they spent so much time on the water, why not build a larger boat and live at one of the marinas on Shelter Island.

In many ways the novel idea was thrilling, but it was also overwhelming, requiring many hours of pro-and-con discussions. While Don’s enthusiasm was obvious, Shirley wasn’t quite as sure that living on a boat year ‘round would be ideal. In the end, it was agreed that, if either found the living unacceptable they would move back to dry land.

That settled, Don spent countless hours at his drawing table, designing their new dream home/yacht.

Ultimately, they decided that it should be 48-feet long with a master, along with an ample number of bunks for their children and grandchildren.

Soon, the construction began at the Market Street location. Once word was out, there was a steady stream of “looky-loo’s” eager for a peek at the newest Blackman project.

In 1987, after taking a year to complete, the 48-foot “Retriever,” named for their beloved labs, was ready to be launched. Special permits secured, their home was trailered in the dead of the night to San Diego Bay to be launched. Don and the family watched as it was filled with fuel and water at Pearson’s Fuel Dock, and the systems tested. The launching went off without a hitch and Don gave his humble smile when she sat perfect in the water. She was beautiful!

After a sea trial, the “Retriever” motored over to their new home at Kona Kai.

Remarkably, they settled in their new digs quickly. Enjoying their new surroundings and neighbors, they found the concept of being able to cast off and go fishing without much preparation an additional bonus.

Tom Darchambo, a Florida resident and a slip-mate of theirs at Kona Kai, shared the following after reading Part 1:

“I had the pleasure of getting to know the Blackmans at the Kona Kai Yacht Club, as their slip was just a couple away from mine. They were indeed two of the nicest people I have ever met, gladly sharing fishing information with me. That was totally opposite of some of the other captains at the club – the old, “I’m gonna’ keep my info a secret” group!”

He continued, “LOL. I was a newbie then, with not much in the way of cred, but as they saw me fish, and catch a few, they and Gene Grimes would answer my questions and give pointers willingly.”

“I even remember meeting you [Gary] at their boat, along with Mike ‘The Beak’, Steve Lassley, and other prominent captains. I relish those memories and now that I’m in Florida, I wish I were back out there, especially with the awesome season that they are having. I keep up with the local news from my good friend Mike McGrath, who is having a good year. I can’t wait for Part II,” he concluded.

Don and Shirley’s pursuit of IGFA world records was remarkable.

“Fishing Machine” wasn’t just a clever marketing name … it was a lifestyle for those two. Talk about being in sync! They fished alone frequently and their results underscored the notion that a captain and angler who slept together could be formidable!

According to IGFA, Ms. Shirley Blackman World Records:

  • Halibut, California W-10 kg (20 lb) 11 lb 4 oz 26-Apr-1981
  • Halibut, California W-06 kg (12 lb) 18 lb 3 oz 06-Jun-1981
  • Tuna, bigeye (Pacific) W-10 kg (20 lb) 92 lb 8 oz 17-Jul-1982
  • Halibut, California W-10 kg (20 lb) 32 lb 8 oz 26-Jun-1983
  • Halibut, California W-08 kg (16 lb) 25 lb 8 oz 15-Jun-1985
  • Halibut, California W-02 kg (4 lb) 17 lb 10 oz 02-Jun-1985
  • Halibut, California W-08 kg (16 lb) 41 lb 0 oz 03-Jul-1994
  • Halibut, California W-03 kg (6 lb) 38 lb 8 oz 08-Jul-1995* still active

Those listed were just the tip of the iceberg. They were frequent trophy winners at all of the various fishing clubs where they were members. In addition, they were awarded buttons recognizing special billfish and tuna catches on different line classes.

It wasn’t long after they had moved to the boat that Don had another of his famous ideas. He decided he needed a rowing dory to supplement his and Shirley’s daily walks. Soon, he was immersed in his new project and “Don’s Dory” was a reality. I will never forget the first time he rowed up to the stern of our boat, the “WaterCloset,” at Southwestern Yacht Club across the fairway from “Retriever” at Kona Kai. He was equally proud of his newest design as he had been of all those that preceded it.

Throughout the 1980s, Yvonne and I visited Cabo and Buena Vista frequently, leaving our 23-foot Blackman so we could fish during Southern California’s off-season. That same decade, we leased a home we called Rancho Deluxe, in the East Cape area. One year, the Blackmans, Don and Peggy Sloan, and Yvonne and I caravanned to “Rancho Deluxe” for a New Year’s Party.

The first night, we stopped at Bill Alvarado‘s Hotel Punta Chivato, south of Santa Rosalia. That night at dinner, Bill recognized us and stopped by our table to say hello. Turned out he really wanted to tell us about the phenomenal striped marlin fishing often experienced in November. Impressed, we all agreed that we would return the following November to check it out.

When we returned to our rooms after dinner, we had not been warned that the generator would shut off. There is nothing darker than a Baja moonless night and we stumbled around in the unfamiliar rooms, trying to find our way to the bathrooms and beds.

Early the following morning, before daylight, we loaded up to continue the trip as one of the many Manx cats the hotel was famous for wandered into our patio. There is a difference of opinion here … some of us remember that she was a friendly critter, others not so much … but we decided that she would be a great addition to Rancho Deluxe.

Sloan and I were old hands at driving Mex One while Blackman was more cautious. When we reached Mulege we decided to stop for coffee. The Blackmans skipped coffee and continued driving south.

We caught up and passed them south of Bahia Conception and they waved us on. Later that evening at the house after the Sloans and Yvonne and I had unloaded both rigs and settled in on the porch to enjoy the Baja evening, we were well into our second drink when the Blackmans arrived.

It was their first trip to Rancho Deluxe. Trying to be helpful, we had painted a bright florescent red arrow on the road so they could recognize the correct turnoff.

“I found your arrow,” Blackman confided sheepishly, “but when I turned onto the dirt, the truck tire slipped into some soft sand along the side of the road and became stuck. However a Mexican rancher came by and pulled us out.” (Yvonne and I have always found the locals to be gracious and helpful to anyone who has problems on the road. They have come to our aide many times.)

We had a great New Year’s party! Both locals and visiting friends attended. The authentic “Pig Roast” catered by a friend, Ramon, and his family was a hit. The party started early and by 9:00 p.m. it was slowing down a tad. I went over to the clock, moved the hands to midnight and everyone cheered, kissed, then departed. Now that’s how to do a Baja New Year’s party! As it turns out, that stunt set the bar for future New Year’s parties.

We were all up early the next morning for breakfast and an ATV ride to Punta Pescadero. One of our chores was to find the Punta Chivato Manx cat a new home, which we did and we watched her thrive and multiply at Rancho Leonero.

The following morning, the Blackman’s left at zero dark hundred to explore more of Baja but they, along with their family, became frequent visitors to Rancho Deluxe.

Steve recalled that his dad said, “I could travel anywhere and do all that, but I wouldn’t feel good about it; I wouldn’t enjoy myself. Give us 3 or 4 days at Rancho Deluxe and I’m happy.” Then they would talk about Rancho Deluxe for the rest of the year.

Few couples have immersed themselves into the sportfishing world, donating enormous amounts of time and thousands of dollars as Don and Shirley. They had become members of the San Diego Marlin Club in 1974. Shirley became club president in 1983, one of only four women presidents in the 83-year history of the club, and Don was president in 1992. Only one other couple in the history of the Marlin Club had husband and wife both serve as club president.

They each served as board members; Don chaired numerous committees and was always there when the club needed his advice; he spent countless hours at the club working on various projects to help make things better. He received the Silver Button for service in 1984 and 1991.

They worked tirelessly for the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (Pacific Region), raising thousands of dollars to combat drift gillnets and Don served from 1999 to 2004 as one of the California Representatives of IGFA.

From a boyhood dream as he sketched boats on his school notebooks, Don, with Shirley by his side, not only met the challenges of a startup business but also the changes and needs of his growing company, challenges that would have overwhelmed many. The 1970s and ‘80s had been extraordinary decades for Blackman. They had established that Blackman Boats was here to stay … and not only were they staying, but they could deliver even larger boats than the 23- and 26-footers.

Old customers were beginning to upgrade and new ones were impressed with what the Blackman offered. Blackman Boats was more successful than its owners had ever dreamed. That’s where the third and final part of our story will begin.

Part 1 Fish Machine

Part 3 Conclusion

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